‘What We Do in the Shadows’ shines brightly

posterWhat We Do in the Shadows
Written & Directed by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi
New Zealand | USA, 2014

What We Do in the Shadows is a new vampire mockumentary that brilliantly straddles the line between accessibility and quirkiness. The pitch-perfect black humor is tempered by a surprising level of tenderness, as well as some sharp observations about the stylized nature of “reality” television. It’s easily the funniest movie of 2015, and seems destined to join the ranks of other classic mockers like This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show.

Armed with crucifixes and heavy-duty insurance clauses, a documentary film crew descends upon the flat of 4 vampires as they prepare for “The Unholy Masquerade;” a massive gathering of New Zealand’s undead community. These aren’t sanitized, sparkly vampires, either. These are hardcore bloodsuckers that prowl the streets for fresh victims every night. Each vampire is vividly captured with a heady mixture of economical writing and inspired performances.

Our tour guide through the house is the amiable and fastidious Viago (Taika Waititi). The 379 year-old “dandy” tiptoes through the decrepit flat, delivering each line of heavily accented dialogue like Janosz from Ghostbusters 2. The exasperation he endures at the hands of his clutter-bug housemates is eclipsed only by his maddening inability to avoid main arteries. Even a collection of carefully-placed newspapers can’t contain the prolific arterial spray.

Vlad the Poker (Jemaine Clement) is a brooding Lothario who indulges his extreme appetites with torture sessions and wild orgies. The 862 year-old was once a great mesmerizer, but lost his mojo after an ill-fated tussle with The Beast (Elena Stejko). Now, he’s reduced to staring into strangers’ windows and imploring, “See me! See me!” Clement’s subtle but effective performance invokes a dark charm that adds an extra layer of droll sarcasm to everything he says.

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At only 183 years-old, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the impetuous child of the group. He refuses to acknowledge the bloody dishes collecting in the sink, even though it’s been his turn to wash them for over 5 years. A tempestuous spirit who doesn’t tolerate criticism, Deacon is prone to having “bat fights” with other vampires. He also has a female slave named Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), whom he promised immortality but keeps stringing along because he needs someone to do his laundry.

Lastly, there is Petyr (Ben Fransham). This 8000 year-old vampire rocks it Nosferatu style, complete with fangs, claws, and a veiny bald head. Obviously terrified of Petyr, the housemates steer clear of his basement tomb, occasionally tossing him a live chicken or hapless human victim. We rarely see Petyr, but he does manage to sire one new vampire, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who causes headaches for the flat with his boastful ramblings (“I am Twilight!”).

Petyr

To reveal any of the juicy twists and turns of What We Do in the Shadows would be a crime, but these rudimentary descriptions should give you a flavor for the ingenuity involved. This is a film that enjoys the details. A delightful opening sequence uses animations and sketches straight off the History Channel to give each character a backstory rife with comedic possibilities. Most of the humor derives from these disparate personalities clashing with each other. Gags are set-up with great care, sometimes spanning the entire story before paying off in the end, and almost all of the zingers cut with surgical precision.

Writer-directors Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Boy), both gifted comedy writers, are obviously students of the vampire genre, as well. They add some amusing wrinkles to many of the familiar vampire tropes. The necessity of being invited indoors, for instance, becomes a particularly vexing issue at nightclubs with discriminating bouncers. Their most ingenious creation, however, is Nick’s human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford). Not only does Stu become a conduit for the ancient vampires to discover modern technologies, he anchors most of the reality television satire. The scene where Nick confesses his vampirism to Stu feels like an excerpt from any current reality show. Tonally and visually, it’s absolutely perfect.

vlad

More surprising, still, are the film’s heartfelt elements. The sub-plot involving Viago’s lost lover is touching without ever feeling overbearing, and the genuine affection the vampires come to have for Stu is both comical and endearing. From a thematic standpoint, these vampires may be monsters, but they understand the importance of friendship and forging lifelong bonds.  Clement and Waititi keep the storytelling so delicate that these emotional elements almost sneak up on you.

Yes, some of the comedic situations are played a bit too broadly. The ongoing schism between the vampires and the werewolves is lackluster at best, even if it does pay off with a satisfying conclusion. When we finally arrive at “The Unholy Masquerade,” too, it’s less raucous than we might have hoped. And, of course, this film desperately needs a new title to entice the uninitiated. Still, these are minor quibbles with an assured film that’s always striving to give us something new.

In a comedy landscape riddled with brain-dead clunkers like Hot Tub Time Machine 2, it’s encouraging to see spirited efforts like What We Do in the Shadows lurking on the periphery. Whether it’s too dark to attract mainstream audiences remains to be seen, but there’s no questioning its craft and humor. These filmmakers are very clear about their objectives, which makes their choices regarding tone and atmosphere almost always spot on. Don’t be surprised to find this comedy gem on several Best Of lists at the end of 2015.

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